Earlier this month Project Gutenberg added the Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Johann Amos Comenius to its catalogue. It is a bilingual English–Latin encyclopaedia for children, originally published in 1657 in Dutch and later translated into English. It is said to be the first children’s picture book in print. The volume reproduced at Project Gutenberg, with all the original woodcuts, is the 11th edition from 1727, which gives you an idea of how popular this text was. It progresses logically through the elements that make up the world, humankind, farming, trades, domestic life, navigation, books and learning, astronomy, virtue, society, entertainments, war, and religion. I don’t think children today get such a well-rounded view of how their world works as the children who studied this simple book must have had. Here is an excerpt from the preface explaining the pedagogical intent:
I. To entice witty children to it, that they may not conceit a torment to be in the school, but dainty fare. For it is apparent, that children (even from their infancy almost) are delighted with Pictures, and willingly please their eyes with these lights: And it will be very well worth the pains to have once brought it to pass, that scare-crows may be taken away out of Wisdom’s Gardens.
II. This same little Book will serve to stir up the Attention, which is to be fastened upon things, and even to be sharpened more and more: which is also a great matter. For the Senses (being the main guides of childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself to an abstracted contemplation of things) evermore seek their own objects, and if they be away, they grow dull, and wry themselves hither and thither out of a weariness of themselves: but when their objects are present, they grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned. This Book then will do a good piece of service in taking (especially flickering) wits, and preparing them for deeper studies.
Speaking of deeper studies:
I’m not sure if Master Comenius has done a very good job of making study seem attractive to children, but I suppose staying up late to study is more fun than getting up early to milk the cow.